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Surrounded by a climate of fear, Egypt's Copts to vote for a secularist president

Subjected to several pogroms by Muslim fanatics since the revolution, Egypt's Copts are opting for a secular candidate to keep out Islamists

Simon Hanna, Tuesday 22 May 2012
Egyptian Christians
File photo: Egyptian Christians march in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
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“We're going to decide together as a community who to vote for and we'll all vote together. We need to decide who will be the best candidate to bring back security and keep the Islamists in check. It will either be Moussa or Shafiq.”

Considering the recent history of his village, Sameh Youssef's words come as no surprise. Youssef is a resident of the rural village of Sol in Atfeeh around 80km outside Cairo. On 5 March 2011, just weeks after Mubarak was forced from power, Muslim villagers set fire to Sol's church after a row over a taboo relationship between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman. Many Christians fled during the violence.

Now Youssef and his fellow Christian villagers are organising to vote as a block, and the two options they are considering are both candidates who held senior positions in the Mubarak regime. Amr Moussa was Mubarak's foreign minister before becoming secretary general of the Arab League, and Ahmed Shafiq – a military man – was the minister of civil aviation before being installed as prime minister in the final days of Mubarak's presidency.

For the Christian residents of Sol, being part of the old regime is a secondary consideration to making sure their church – now rebuilt – stays safe. Before he was excluded from the race, Youssef says all the Copts in the village had decided to vote for one of the figures most closely associated with Mubarak - Omar Suleiman, the former head of Egypt's General Intelligence Service. The Christian community, he says, is desperate for a civil state as soon as possible, as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has totally failed to protect them since it took over from Mubarak in February 2011, and an Islamic state would mean going from bad to worse.

“Any of the Islamist candidates winning would be bad news for us. Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh is the best of a bad bunch. But (Brotherhood candidate) Mohamed Morsi or Selim El-Awa would be a disaster. You can't trust the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) - they lied saying they wouldn't put forward a candidate for the presidency and they put two forward. And who is El-Awa to run for president? He triggered sectarian strife by falsely claiming that churches were being used to hoard weapons... and now he wants to be president?!”

The Fear Factor

The burning of the church in Sol was not an isolated incident. In the 15 months since the SCAF came to power, two other churches were set on fire in Imbaba, Cairo, and another church was partially destroyed near Edfu in the south. There were also casualties during sectarian clashes in Mansheyet Nasr, and the eviction of Coptic families from their homes in the town of Amreya, Alexandria. All of this has meant that even for Copts that haven't witnessed these attacks first hand, the fear is there.

Herbert Deeb Nazeer is a makwagi - a one man operation that offers ironing and clothes washing services - just off Tahrir Square. Herbert says he is in total support of the revolution even though he has personally suffered from it - his shop has had to close when there's been violence in the square, and he says business is down 15 or 20 per cent since the revolution.

“I'm going to vote for Amr Moussa,” he begins, while mechanically ironing, folding and stacking. “I would have preferred someone not associated with the old regime, and I know he won't realise the demands of the revolution, but he will get us out of this mess. Then maybe in four years we can pick someone better. But right now we need someone to protect our streets, to clear out the criminals, the baltageya (hired thugs) and the Salafists.”

The walls of Herbert's tiny shop are adorned with Coptic images – a calendar with pictures of saints, a crucifix, a picture of the Virgin Mary. He says he's optimistic about the elections – optimistic that either Moussa or Shafiq will get elected. Like most of the Coptic community, he rejects any candidates that have a background in political Islam, and would back any non-Islamist in the second round runoff.

There are, of course, other presidential candidates who's background involves neither Islamism nor working with Mubarak, but Herbert isn't convinced by them. “Hamdeen Sabbahi is good, he is honourable, clean. And I like Khaled Ali; he is a normal person from a simple background like me. But neither have the political experience nor the international recognition needed to control Egypt at a time like this.”

Pro-Revolution?

A wide range of revolutionary movements portray both Moussa and Shafiq as a return to Mubarak-era politics which the revolution rose up against. But many Coptic voters Ahram Online spoke to said they were both pro-revolution and pro-Moussa. One such voter, who wanted to be known only as Magda, is a middle aged resident of the middle income Cairo neighbourhood of Mohandiseen.

“I am pro-revolution, and my brother is anti-revolution. He used to go down and take part in pro-Mubarak rallies in Mustafa Mahmoud Square, whereas I celebrated Mubarak's downfall in Tahrir. My brother is supporting Ahmed Shafiq, which I think is terrible news for the revolution. But I'm supporting Amr Moussa... not all the old regime are bad, Moussa is clean.”

For Magda, once again the issue of security was paramount, referring not only to recent violence but decades of persecution and discrimination suffered by the Coptic minority. Moussa, she says, was the only candidate with the personality and strength to reign in the thugs and the Islamists. But Magda is careful to add that her opposition is to Islamic extremism, and not to Islam itself.

“All the candidates are Muslim, this isn't the issue. It's not a question of religion it's a question of extremism. Look at the parliament. We experimented with having an Islamist parliament and look where that got us. Some of these people want to implement a strict form of sharia law and take us back to the dark ages with their policies.”

Magda says she admits that her choice of candidate may be based more on fear than on hope. “What do you expect?” she says. “We were brought up on fear. From Nasser to Mubarak you could be kidnapped and tortured for speaking out against the regime. They instilled fear in us all.”

One man with the finger on the pulse of what Copts are feeling across the country is Youssef Sidhom, the chief editor of Coptic weekly newspaper Watani and a member of the "Melli Council" - an official secular body attached to the Coptic Orthodox Church. He says that with the Coptic Orthodox Church staying out of the election and not supporting any particular candidate, the Coptic vote will go to the candidate that can address two main concerns. 

“The priority for Copts, as for all Egyptians, is security and the economy. This is not the time to take a gamble, the situation in Egypt is such that we need to vote for a president with experience that can control the current chaos and instability, bring back safety and security and revive the economy.”

Sidhom says that the vast majority of Copts will be voting for Moussa or Shafiq – who he says meet the above criteria. According to Sidhom they trump other non-Islamist candidates like Hamdeen Sabbahi and Hisham Bastawisi as they have the political experience and international credibility needed at this critical stage. “Yes they were involved in the Mubarak regime, but they were the good ones. The bad ones are behind bars. If the authorities had anything on Moussa and Shafiq they'd be on trial like (former parliament speaker) Fathi Sourour and (senior NDP official and businessman) Ahmed Ezz.”

Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Not all Copts are of the opinion that going back to Mubarak-era officials is the best way to progress.

The Maspero Youth Union, a Coptic rights movement borne out of the street politics of the revolution, says it is not officially supporting any candidate. But member and political activist Beshoy Tamry says that their preference is for a revolutionary figure. He says their position is that a civil state is their primary demand, and therefore they reject Islamist candidates seeking an Islamic state. Figures from the old regime committed to a civil state, however, could be considered.

But not by some.

“I totally reject these members of the old regime running for president of course,” says John Magdy, an IT consultant at the Video Cairo news organisation. “Remnants of the Mubarak regime are still in power, and their presence in this presidential race is totally against what we fought for in Tahrir.”

Magdy sits talking in the IT office surrounded by half open computers with parts sticking out. The Video Cairo building is downtown facing the Nile, right next to Maspero – the state television building which was the scene of the 9 October massacre. That evening a Coptic demonstration was attacked by the military police, resulting in over 20 deaths from live gunfire and military APCs driving into the crowds and crushing protesters. Christian demonstrators died right outside the Video Cairo building, and some ran inside that night to hide from the military police.

“Most Copts think that Moussa and Shafiq can control the security situation and safeguard Copts. But look at how the authorities have dealt with us since the uprising – these are not policies and mindset we want to go back to.”

Magdy proudly says he is going to vote for Hamdeen Sabbahi – openly rejecting Islamist candidates and candidates he calls “feloul,” remnants of the former regime. “Moussa and Shafiq are popular with Copts as they are seen as the 'anti-Islamist' vote. Unfortunately the performance of the Islamists since taking the parliament has been a shambles and the statements that have been coming out of certain Salafists have terrified Christians and moderate Muslims alike. Most don't think the likes of Hamdeen Sabbahi can make them feel secure again, but voting for a feloul will only take us backwards.”

Magdy says that if the second round runoff is between a candidate of the old regime and an Islamist, he will boycott that vote as he couldn't bring himself to back either camp.

“We need to move forward. The revolution is the only way to achieve our goals like freedom and equality. Continuing the revolution will bring us human rights, for all Egyptians. And with that comes rights for us as Christians.”

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